KONZ | Recapping the most memorable JCPS stories from 2016
Welcome to the last day of 2016, which means it's time for WDRB education reporter Toni Konz's annual JCPS year-in-review column.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Welcome to the last day of 2016, which means it's time for my annual JCPS year-in-review column.
You may recall how I thought last year may have been the busiest of my career when I wrote around 225 stories. This year was even busier -- I wrote a total of 245 stories from Jan. 1 through Dec. 30.
From the closing of one school (Frost Middle School) and the opening of a brand new facility (Norton Commons Elementary School) to controversy over the district's $1.4 billion budget, its salary structure and how resources are being spent, coupled with another year of discipline issues, 2016 will be a year I won't soon forget.
What was the first story I wrote this year? A proposal to change the JCPS funding formula and how it could impact schools. This was the first of many stories to come about how the district's new chief business officer, Tom Hudson, wanted to make some changes to the way JCPS handles its business.
Then came Jan. 8, the day all Louisville public and parochial schools operated on a heightened alert following an unspecified threat that was made to the Louisville Metro Police Department's anonymous tip line. Attendance in JCPS that day was a record-low 45.5 percent. (Who stayed home Friday? Attendance figures for every JCPS school).
Here are some of the top stories I reported on during 2016:
- Every 1 Reads
Millions of dollars have gone to a JCPS reading program, and for the past seven years, a WDRB investigation revealed it was being spent on something else.
"I wouldn't say it's not legal by any means," says Cordelia Hardin, the district's chief financial officer.
But some lawmakers disagree, after we revealed our findings.
“If they misuse it or spend it for something else, that's a misappropriation," said Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville. "That's essentially stealing from the fund we have designated it for. That's illegal."
- Salary freeze, code of conduct changes and walk-ins
A day after a comprehensive salary review was released by JCPS, dozens of parents, teachers and other employees slammed the district over a recommendation to freeze the salaries of some workers.
Then came word that JCPS was considering loosening its student Code of Conduct policies to reduce punishments for some offenses that would typically remove thousands of students from class each year.
A week later, thousands of employees and students at about 100 of the district's 155 schools staged a “walk-in” before school to protest recommendations that would loosen the district's code of conduct and freeze salaries.
Protests continued before, during and after several school board meetings, even into the summer months as many employees were off for summer break.
After months of debate and planning, a $2 million overhaul involving two of Kentucky’s lowest performing middle schools took center stage as JCPS opened two separate academies on the former site of Stuart Middle School in August.
The campus, located on Valley Station Road, serves about 560 students attending the Robert Frost Sixth-Grade Academy and about 680 seventh and eighth graders attending Stuart Academy.
“We are going to watch this very carefully because there is a lot at stake here,” said Linda Duncan, a school board member who represents southern Jefferson County. “We’ve not had an arrangement like this where we’re actually creating two schools in one building, two separate programs in one building.”
Daily fights, classroom disruptions, excessive profanity and disrespect for teachers and staff – these are not the things Daimen Fuentes thought he would find when he chose the Academy @ Shawnee in his pursuit of the American dream.
“My mother leaves us to go to school, thinking that we are safe in school but we are not,” said Daiman Fuentes, 17, who along with his twin brother, Dariel, emigrated to the United States from Cuba about a year ago. "We are afraid. And this is not only us, we are talking in the voice of many students who have the same concerns that we do.”
According to data obtained by WDRB in an open records request, there have been nearly 1,087 student behavior incidents reported at Shawnee since the start of the 2016-17 year, down from 1,314 incidents during the same time period last year. However, student suspensions through the first 54 days of school have increased from 154 last year to 266 this year.
WDRB's report prompted the district to send in additional staff and support to Shawnee.
Amzie Smith remembers exactly where she was when her life took a sudden turn and she found her true purpose.
"It was late October, two days before Halloween...I was sitting in my room and my side started hurting," the 16-year-old Ballard High High School junior recalls. "It really came out of nowhere. The pain persisted for three days and I went to the doctor, they thought maybe it was my gall bladder and decided to do a scan."
Suddenly, the energetic teenager was facing two rounds of chemotherapy, which ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. Her long, dark brown hair fell out. She was often sick to her stomach and weak.
Doctors tried another treatment and Amzie and her family -- mom Kathy Douglas and stepdad Tad Douglas, her father Dan Smith and stepmom Jennifer Mangeot Smith and her younger sister, Kyndal -- initially thought her tumors were shrinking, only to find out they had gotten bigger.
By August, all treatments had stopped. Since then, the only medication she has received is to help ease her pain, which she calls "manageable."
"There is no cure," she said. "They told me I only had a few weeks, maybe a few months, left to live."
At that point, Amzie set one one goal -- make it to her 17th birthday, which is Saturday (Oct. 15th).
Amzie made it through her birthday as well as Christmas and is looking forward to getting through as much of 2017 as she can.
The scene was chaotic: an SUV had swerved to avoid a JCPS bus just past the intersection of 32nd Street and Dumensil, slamming into a group of three young children waiting on the sidewalk.
Louisville Metro Police Officer Christopher Dudley was among the first to arrive shortly after 8 a.m. on Oct. 20, his heart dropping as he saw one child trapped under the Cadillac Escalade and several others crying nearby.
“The first thing any of us thought when we showed up is who can be saved,” says Dudley, who was about a half mile away when the call came out. “We saw the little girl and we immediately got down and started to get the vehicle off of her."
The little girl – nine-year-old Vanessa Levros – was unresponsive. Her 10-year-old brother, Jaconiah “Joc” Fields, and another boy, eight-year-old Phillip Neal III, had broken bones, concussions and other internal injuries.
But two months later, the families of the three children and those who helped them are able to re-live the moments of that terrible day and look forward. Despite the emotional and physical scars, Phillip, Joc and Vanessa are expected to be OK.
The two boys have returned to classes at Engelhard and Dixie elementary schools. Vanessa was released from Norton Children’s Hospital two weeks ago and sent last week to Frazier Rehab Center. Doctors have told the family the plan is for her to go home this week, just in time for Christmas.
- Will a new superintendent take over in 2017?
A critical survey released in the spring showed a sharp drop in JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens' leadership and in the district’s ability to manage money efficiently.
During her annual evaluation released in June, board members said Hargens must "step up to the challenge" of leading Kentucky's largest school district and regain the trust that has eroded in the past year.
The eight-page evaluation commended Hargens' efforts to lead the district through a new strategic planning process, but said she must address a dip in employee morale and focus her efforts on providing better communication with schools and staff about how certain policies should be created and why those changes need to be made.
The turmoil has continued to test Superintendent Donna Hargens’ support on the school board. At one point, a petition to oust Hargens reached thousands of signatures.
In addition, the 2016 election will bring two new faces to the Jefferson County Board of Education and both Chris Kolb (who defeated board chairman David Jones Jr.) and Ben Gies (who is replacing retiring board member Chuck Haddaway) both ran on campaigns to get rid of Hargens and begin searching for new leadership.
These are only a handful of the stories that I have told this year. I feel fortunate to have covered JCPS for nine years, first at the newspaper and now at WDRB.
As 2016 comes to a close and we look to 2017, I look forward to visiting more schools and telling more stories -- the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. I hope everyone has a safe holiday season!
Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter. You can also follow Toni on Facebook and Instagram for more updates from her beat.